Living in America, waiting years for it to be home


Even though Cynthia Espinoza had lived in Minnesota for eight years, she had to pay out-of-state tuition when she went to Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

That’s because Espinoza, now 32, a political refugee from Guatemala, wasn’t a permanent resident, and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition.

“All this process of getting the residence was so slow. It took us 20 years to get our residence card,” Espinoza said.

However, for Yolanda Hernandez, 34, who came illegally from Mexico, it took less than two years to get her residence card because her husband is a citizen.

How long it takes to earn permanent residency or citizenship can vary widely – from one to 25 years. Every family is different.

“The immigration system of the United States is broken. It doesn’t work for millions of people,” said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul. “The government of this country does not spend enough time, money and staff to reduce the amount of time people have to wait just to be interviewed.”

For example:

• Refugees can get a work permit a few months after arriving, but getting a residency card can take years.

• Immigrants who marry American citizens can usually get residency in one to two years.

• People outside the country who have brothers and sisters who are United States citizens may wait 12 to 15 years before they can get legal documents.

The time that a person can wait also depends on which country they are from.

“There are some countries that have a major demand of applications, such as Mexico,” Keller said. “That makes the process even slower.”

One thing’s for sure: For the 15 million undocumented people already living in the United States, there is no way to apply for legal status except through marriage.

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